Last year, working New Zealanders and Australians reported that they were spending more time working late compared to 2019 (89% of people vs 81%). The biggest barriers to their productivity were high workloads and having to attend too many meetings. In line with this, nearly half of New Zealand employees (42%) reported workload demands as a key stressor in their work life, according to our Umbrella Wellbeing Assessment data. Fewer than half were satisfied with their work-life balance.

When we fit these puzzle pieces together, it becomes somewhat unsurprising that the number of people annually experiencing burnout currently in New Zealand could be as high as 77%.

Do these statistics include you? Do they include members of your team? Your family? 

Whether you have first-hand experience or not, you should know that the consequences of burnout are not insignificant. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress from burnout can lead to fatigue, insomnia, substance misuse, high blood pressure, heart disease and vulnerability to a number of illnesses. It is also recognised as a major risk factor for depression and anxiety, and more severe burnout is associated with heightened risk of hospital admission for mental illness and cardiovascular issues. 

As well as taking a large toll on the mental and physical health of employees experiencing burnout, it’s a problem for the bottom line of business. Burnout often manifests through reduced efficacy at work and is regularly associated with higher staff turnover (especially for younger employees).

What is burnout?

In 2019, the World Health Organization identified burnout resulting from chronic ongoing workplace stress as a syndrome in the International Classification of Diseases. In it, burnout is defined by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • reduced professional efficacy.

The World Health Organization emphasises that burnout is an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition in and of itself. (Although, as noted above, there is a growing literature on the physical health consequences of burnout.) 

Why does it occur?

Dr Christina Maslach, a psychologist at the University of California Berkeley, is widely considered a pioneer of burnout research. In her research alongside Dr Michael Leiter, she identified six key organisational factors contributing to burnout:

  • High workload leaving little opportunity to rest and recover and therefore reducing people’s ongoing ability to meet job demands
  • Lack of control and autonomy making employees more likely to disengage from their work due to an inability to influence decisions that affect how they work
  • Insufficient reward and recognition, whether monetary, institutional, or interpersonal, leading to feelings of inadequacy
  • Poor sense of community leading to burnout when relationships at work are characterised by low levels of trust, lack of support, and unresolved conflict
  • Perceptions of equity and fairness being compromised and burnout risk growing when employees do not have faith in the fairness of the decision-making process and their place in it
  • Mismatch in values acting as a catalyst for burnout when individual and organisational values clash, leading employees to make a trade-off between the “work they want to do and the work they have to do”.

Who is affected?

All working individuals have the capacity to experience burnout in their life, given the non-specific symptoms and the potential for any working environment to provoke challenges related to workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.

However, according to Maslach and Leiter, the rates of burnout appear to be higher for those in the healthcare professions, compared to rates in the general working population. This is also true for other professions who regularly perform emotional labour as part of their job (e.g. call centre staff). Other evidence also suggests that non-managers, employees with higher educational qualifications, and employees who have worked in their organisation for longer may also be at higher risk.

How can I help myself and my team?

There are a number of things individuals, managers and organisations can do to reduce the risk of burnout. You can check out our other recent articles on individual strategies and leadership strategies to find out what these steps might look like in action.

In addition, Dr Christina Maslach suggests some of the following:

  • Help people cope with the stressors in their job (e.g. building individual resilience).
  • Allow not going to work to act as a stigma-free solution (i.e. promote and normalise taking annual leave, sick leave, and creating strict boundaries between home and work).
  • Enact organisational culture change that helps to create for all employees a sustainable workload, choice and control, recognition and reward, a supportive work community, fairness, respect, social justice, clear values and meaningful work.

And, for more on this topic, we highly recommend watching Dr Maslach’s presentation on Understanding Job Burnout, or reading a written excerpt of the presentation.